Corporate Event Photography

One of the aspects of my job is to shoot events. It’s one of the things that I am least good at, and although when I look at my work over the years it’s clear that I’m improving, at the end I feel unsatisfied. I am never 100% happy with the work I produce at these things, and I always feel like I should be doing better. Which is to say that I think more seasoned event photographers would do better than me.

Now, a note on that last statement. I am not talking about wedding photography when I say events. I’m talking about corporate event photography. And while I risk starting a flame war here, I would be willing to say that there are far more competent wedding photographers than there are competent corporate event photographers. When I try to locate examples and tips and advice about event photography, it is almost always about weddings, which is an entirely different animal to your basic corporate event.

Let me break this down a bit. At a wedding, people expect, if not beg, to have their photo taken. There is an understanding that having your photo taken at a wedding is part of the gift you are giving the bride and groom to remember their day, and that to avoid the camera would be depriving them of their happy memories. The photog usually is able to use flash, have an assistant, and have a dedicated period of time for photography (for at least the wedding party). And for the guests there is usually tons of booze making it easy to forget about the photographer.

At a corporate event things are very different. First, there isn’t any booze, at least during the day sessions. And if there is booze at the cocktail hours and dinners, they don’t want anyone having their picture taken while they’re drinking, so you have to get creative to crop out wine glasses etc. But most of all, people don’t really want to have their photos taken at corporate events. They are there to work, and not to have fun. Sometimes they fake having fun if they need to for their jobs, but they don’t want photographic evidence of it.

So here’s the problem that I face. I walk into the room usually with a slightly hostile crowd who doesn’t want their photo taken in the first place. Furthermore, they are generally sitting listening to a lecture, or taking notes, or sleeping. Hard to get exciting shots under those circumstances. There isn’t time for me to build up a rapport, or to be there passively for so long that they get used to me. I have a short period of time to build a library of images for the client, so I can’t mess around. And then there is the problem of how to get the types of shots that I want from a technical standpoint.

What kind of shots do I want? I want candid expressions, people interacting. I want shots of people who have forgotten that they are on camera and are reacting to the event in a natural way. These events usually take place in large hotel ball rooms which generally don’t have windows, and do have very high ceilings. For me, this makes lighting a particularly tough challenge.

Option one is to use on-camera flash. This is particularly difficult for a number of reasons. First, your standard speedlight, although powerful, is very small in comparison to the size of the room. In order for me to get the quality of light I am looking for, I have to be very close to my subjects. However, this usually isn’t possible because hotels generally pack tables so close together for these events that it is very difficult to navigate more than the edges of the room, and there would be large portions of the room that my flash won’t reach. Not to mention the fact that I’d really be getting into people’s faces, which wouldn’t get me the shots that I want. And the constant flashes would be a distraction to the people at the conference.

Off camera flash? The only way I could think of doing this would be to set up a series of fill strobes to raise the ambient light in the whole room, while at the same time being hidden enough so that I can shoot from any angle. But then I’m faced with the same problem of the lights causing a distraction.

Last week I photographed a tax event for college students that my company sponsored. 100+ students listening to lectures and doing team-building activities. After a few stuttering tries to capture the event using my on-camera strobe, I put it away for the rest of the event and decided to shoot the whole event using available light, long exposures, and high ISOs. I shot most of the event using my new 70-200 with image stablization and I couldn’t be happier with the that! Having been used to the non-stablilzed 70-200 I felt like a zen master, snapping crystal clear shots at 200mm at 50/second, handheld. This may not be that exciting for some people, but for someone without super-steady hands this was a real breakthrough for me.

Discover Tax Conference

As you can see, even though I’m using the high ISO, I was able to get some great detail (click on the image to see the full sized sample on Flickr).  For the pixel peepers, sure, when blown up these images are a bit grainy. You won’t be seeing them on giant billboards or even large posters any time soon but the quality is more than enough for my client and what they were looking for. I shot all of these images with available light on a Canon 5D on or around 800-1000 ISO.

So what happens if the client does need better quality? What if they needed to use these images larger? That’s when I’d start to sweat, and would probably tell the client that it wasn’t something I could do.  One part of me is like, anything more than I was delivered is asking too much and I shouldn’t worry about it. But the other part of me wants to be able to solve the problem. I’d be interested in hearing if anyone else has any ideas I could try when photographing these kinds of events. Again, the challenges to be over-come are:

  • Large, windowless hotel ballrooms with overall low ambient light
  • Inabilitiy to get close to the subjects due to layout of the room and/or semi-hostile attitude towards the photog
  • Flash photography could distract from the event

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